Fairness is in the eye of the beholder

Opinion: Columns

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By Jim Bowman

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State Sen. Don Harmon's optimism at the Business and Civic Council's Carleton Hotel session on June 28 has been noted. More can be said. He protested "sky [is] falling" rhetoric about Illinois' pension problem and praised the legislature for having "cut government to the bone."

"We can afford" pension payments, he said. "We never missed a payment; we never will." Here as throughout, he addressed pensioners' worries but not fiscal problems facing the state as borrower and spender. "It's a budget issue," he said, to further calm pensioners' worries. Indeed, the budget just passed, a "pretty good" one, "pays the pension fully" for the coming year.

He joked at one point. Legislators "kind of solved the pension problem with the 2010 reform" — tightening benefits for new hires. "'Tain't funny, McGee," Fibber's wife Molly used to say on the radio.

As for the recent all-Democrat gridlock performance in Springfield, it was a matter, he said, of "honest, principled differences." He was at the Carleton that day to put matters in a kindly light.

He defended the January 2011 income-tax increase from 3% to 5%. Democrats call it a 2% raise, but Republicans say 67%, he said dismissively (Crafty Republicans, pretending the issue is how much you pay and not three-plus-two-equals-five).

Republicans convinced others to avoid the 2% designation, however, including the Christian Science Monitor ("why lawmakers passed 66 percent income-tax hike"), the New York Times ("about 66 percent"), and the Huffington Post (66%, "a massive increase").

He said jobs are up in Illinois, down in Wisconsin, which is finding consolation where it may be found — 49,000 year-to-year for Illinois, 10,000 for Wisconsin, an economy roughly half the size. He did this while ignoring year-to-year percentages for unemployment, Illinois' 9.1% (up from 8.9%), and Wisconsin's 7% (unchanged).

He talked up a state income "fair tax," meaning higher rates for higher earners, which we do call "progressive," do we not? He was "not surprised," he said, at Republican opposition to his bill, which he introduced in the last day of the recent session, in that they are beholden to "the more well-off," for whose interests they would be expected to "step up," so as to "perpetuate an unfair tax."

It was the sort of thumb-in-eye comment — in the (Springfield) State-Journal Register on June 29, the day after the Carleton Hotel session — that Oak Parkers rarely if ever hear from him.

The "fair tax" term is worth noting. It's been in use at least since 1999, when Republicans in Congress introduced the flat tax — a national sales tax — intended to simplify income tax returns and sharply reduce the role of the IRS if not put it out of business. The term was also a matter of presidential-campaign discussion in 2008 and remains the goal of the advocacy organization Americans For Fair Taxation.

Illinois Democrats' proposed fair tax, on the other hand, is imposed according to income. The brand name for this tax is progressive, as we know, and Democrats are usually proud of it. But in this case, they prefer the friendlier "fair tax." For marketing reasons, we must suppose.

Email: jimbowman7@aol.com Twitter: @BlitheSp

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